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Sergeant details earlier confession
What's new: Police sergeant testifies to taking a detailed and accurate statement from a suspect in 1999.
By Stacy St. Clair and Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/2/2007

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Roughly 12 hours after being arrested in connection with the Brown's Chicken murders, John Simonek appeared ready to confess.

He signed away his right to remain silent. He agreed to have his confession recorded. And then he wove a tale about how he and a friend killed seven people inside the Palatine restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993.

Prosecutors, however, downplayed the detailed confession's veracity during testimony Tuesday in Juan Luna's trial. They minimized Simonek's knowledge of facts that hadn't been released to the public, suggesting the suspect had been fed information by officers during his interrogation.

The statement's mere existence is a key defense strategy for Luna, one of two men charged with the murders. Luna, now 34, also gave a videotaped statement to police in which he implicates himself and a friend in the murders.

The defense hopes to convince jurors that Simonek's intimate knowledge of the crimes suggests he played a role in it.

At the very least, they have prosecutors and police officers acknowledging untoward interrogation practices.

Prosecutors allege Luna and pal Jim Degorski killed seven people -- Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Rico Solis, Guadalupe Maldonado, Marcus Nellsen and Thomas Mennes -- inside the restaurant in 1993.

The men, who are being tried separately, have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

Both Simonek and the man he implicated later were cleared of any wrongdoing in the case. Neither man matches the DNA on half-eaten chicken pieces found at the crime scene, experts testified.

Police arrested Simonek on Aug. 5, 1999, after another employee implicated him in the crime. He was questioned by police for roughly 12 hours before Palatine Police Sgt. Richard Cruz was sent in to take a statement from him.

Cruz, a major crimes detective, had not been involved in the investigation and testified he had only a rudimentary understanding of the facts in the case. Though he had been a detective for 10 years at that time, he had never taken a confession.

Cruz testified that he suggested to the Brown's task force leader that a Cook County's state's attorney handle the statement, in keeping with the department's normal practices. The request appeared to be denied.

"I think a state's attorney should have been there," Cruz testified.

A prosecutor questioned Luna during his 2002 videotaped statement to police.

In Simonek's five-page statement, which he signed and was allowed to correct, he says he and his accomplice were driving around the Northwest suburbs when his friend became hungry and they decided to go to Brown's Chicken. He doesn't remember the time, but it was late enough so that there were no other customers in the restaurant, according to the statement.

His companion ordered a meal and then ate it near a "west-side window," according to the statement. Witnesses previously had testified that crumbs were found on a table on the restaurant's west side.

The half-eaten chicken that prosecutors say links Luna to the crime was found in a trash can near that table.

Simonek told police his friend finished eating and the crime began.

"The next thing I remember we were behind the counter," he said. "(The accomplice) began yelling at people and was pointing a gun at them."

Simonek said his friend brandished a revolver -- the same type of gun police say was used in the killings -- and ordered the victims into the freezer. The friend ordered Simonek to take two people into a freezer on the other side of the restaurant.

As he closed the door to the west freezer, Simonek heard gunfire coming from the other freezer, he told Cruz. Simonek said when he emerged from the second refrigeration unit, he saw his accomplice shooting people.

Simonek said he took the gun from his friend and fired a shot at the metal fryer hoods. Crime scene technicians have testified they found a bullet mark consistent with that statement.

Simonek said he then went and shot a man in the freezer. He fired another round into the refrigeration unit, but had trouble seeing through the plastic strips and was unsure if he hit anyone.

Crime scene technicians also have testified to the existence of a bullet hole in one of the plastic strips hanging in front of the cooler. Two victims, Mennes and Richard Ehlenfeldt, were found in the unit.

Five others were found in the freezer where Simonek told police his friend unloaded the gun. After everyone had been fatally shot, Simonek said his accomplice stabbed the dead bodies.

Both Castro and Lynn Ehlenfeldt suffered knife wounds in the attack. Experts agree Castro was stabbed after his death, but they have divergent opinions regarding the gaping slash on Ehlenfeldt's neck.

Cook County medical examiners testified the cut was made before she was shot in the back of the head. But a defense pathologist testified Tuesday the blood path shows it occurred after she was shot, a fact that would be inconsistent with Luna's confession.

With all seven people dead, Simonek said he left the restaurant and returned to his friend's brown station wagon. His accomplice soon joined him and told him to swear they would never tell anyone what happened.

Simonek said he returned home and threw out his clothes. He can't remember what he did with the sneakers he was wearing. Simonek said he wore a 11 to 11.5 Nike high-top shoe, a size slightly smaller than a footprint found at the crime scene.

Prosecutors offered no explanation of why a man would falsely implicate both himself and a friend in one of the bloodiest crimes in suburban Chicago history. The defense had hoped to call Simonek as a witness, but he apparently cannot be located.

Cruz testified he had immediate doubts about Simonek's truthfulness. The sergeant said he did not know whether the suspect had been abused, coerced or fed information during earlier police questioning.

"I wasn't part of the interrogation," he testified.

Despite the reservations Cruz stated during testimony Tuesday, Simonek remained in police custody that night. He implicated himself and his friend again the next morning in a 15-minute videotaped statement to police.

DNA evidence later cleared Simonek and his friend of any involvement in the crime. That same genetic testing would be used to link Luna to crime three years later.

On Tuesday, however, a molecular biologist told the jury not to trust the DNA evidence -- which police say they found on half-eaten chicken bones at the scene -- because it had been contaminated.

Witnesses have testified to touching the food without gloves, repeatedly thawing the samples and picking off chunks of meat to identify specific parts.

There are also at least two people's DNA found on the chicken. Though authorities say Luna matches one of the profiles, they have not been able to locate the other source.

"Considering how the sample was stored, processed and handled," DNA expert Karl A. Reich testified, "contamination is the most likely explanation."

Reich also said prosecution suggestions of a link between Luna and the chicken bones was overstated. The match was made using nine individual DNA characteristics, though Reich said at least 13 are required by today's standards.

He said he could not thoroughly review the state's findings because the DNA swabs were lost in 2004. The related computer data also had been lost, but it was recovered and eventually reconstructed.

The rebuilt data was so severely damaged, Reich testified, it would shut down his computer anytime he tried to run it with analytical software.